Now that the world has split open, let’s talk about some celebs who practice non-western spiritual systems.
Every time you drink a Starbucks coffee, you essentially are paying homage to the voodoo deity, Mami Wata. Now don’t spit out that $5 cup of joe, embrace that you indulge in indigenous culture, but acknowledge how shit gets hacked.
Nonetheless, this write up isn’t about how the West and Europe “borrow” indigenous philosophy then commoditize it. This article is about acknowledging celebrities who openly practice some form or strain of traditional African spiritual systems.
Generically called, African Traditional Religion or ATR, it is more complex than one practice, and not religion. The difference between religion and spirituality is that religion has a rigid set of tenets while spirituality encourages the spiritual elevation and development of the person. Although ATR is an umbrella term for many traditions, it is not a monolithic cultural phenomena or practice. In the diaspora, ATR ranges from Santeria and Candomble, Palo and Obeah, and to conjure or mojo.
There are numerous studies even showing how the Black Church in the US is very rooted in those practices. Ironically, those of the white Jesus church, attempt to vilify, but appropriate worship styles such as: call-and-response, speaking in tongues, prayer cloths, re-enacting a blood sacrifice, and even reading certain scriptures to invoke certain actions. Yep, you’ve hit the jackpot, that’s the Black indigenous Jesus from the Congo or Cartagena. The one they try to keep away.
Below are a list of notables who have in some way, been affiliated, deep into practice or come across it in real life. Most, allegedly, implement it into their lives. Ironically, Hollywood and the West have a sordid history of demonizing and misconstruing the spiritual traditions of African, Native nations of the Americas, Asia and Australia. Yet and still, they survive in its descendants.
In this roll out, I mostly point to people using the Yoruba tradition of Ifa or Orisa, and its many derivatives. Most notably, Santeria, Lukumi and Voodoo, which is also from the Benin and Congo region of West Africa. Trust me there are many more. To me, ATR practice is evident in expressions of art or even something as mundane as clothes, but with a keen eye, and some years around the block, I think I’ve been able to identify some people. Allegedly. Did I say, allegedly? Yes.
Soul artist D’Angelo conjured up all types of ancestral creative energy in his second album, “Voodoo.” If you go back and listen, the beginning is a short clip of ceremonial drums from a Santeria, Palo or voodoo ceremony, but it definitely is a ritual music that might be an ode to Elegba, an orisa or divinity in the West African pantheon of Gods that represents opening the door.
Added, in a documentary following the making of D’Angelo’s, “Voodoo” album, he travels to Cuba to take the visual images of his album. In his signature, topless cover art, flanked around his neck are spiritual beads called elekes. Miss cuss-you-out Khia, the “My Neck My Back” rapper wears her yellow and gold elekes around her wrist faithfully.
Elekes are found in Santeria, Lukumi and other West African derived spiritual systems as beads for protection and to honor or acknowledge the energy of certain orisa that serve as your protector. Whether D’Angelo practices now or not, his influence in it is undeniable. Khia certainly does as she has named her bracelets on her Youtube show before when a caller complimented her on them. The yellow and gold signify Osun, an orisa also linked to a few popular singers and emcees.
One more soul singer captured wearing elekes is, “Love in the Club,” crooner, Usher. When he married his second wife, Grace Miguel, they wed and honeymooned in Cuba. Several photos show him with elekes with the Yoruba Orisa, Sango and bracelets on his right hand. In another photo, he is wearing all white with a pouch, which I surmise is a bag with a protection pouch containing stones, crystals, herbs, or some type of gris gris. In another photo, he is in all black with the same pouch, which shows that pouch means more than an accessory piece.
The orisa ghetto grapevine says that Usher is a child of Sango, like another ATLien, Ludacris, who just was in the Verzuz battle with Nelly. I’ll explain later what is means to be a child of Sango.
Djimon Gaston Hounsou dove totally into his voodoo culture when he did a whole ass documentary about voodoo in Benin, his home country. In it, he explains that his surname means, “born into the voodoo shrine.” Certainly, he does not shy away from the ceremonies or receiving his blessings from high priests. Hounsou demystifies voodoo and addresses the myths and negative disinformation often flowing in the Western world.
O/Gs in these Yoruba streets are rumored to be Forest Whitaker and Danny Glover, who are said to be babalawos in the Ifa tradition, which is the high order of priesthood. Another Yoruba priest, Iyanla Vanzant (in above photo), who is said to be an Osun priest, merged much of her practice with her spiritual-self help methods. Now she ascribes to a melange, embracing ATR with Christianity and Native nation thought.
Included in the older crew is respected elder and artist, Judith Jamison, who explored Afro-Brazilian spirituality, Candomble. During a trip to Brazil she was told that she was a child of Nana Buruku, an orisa representing one the old, old mother. Fits perfectly.
The Queen of Salsa and Latin-music, Celia Cruz, was an Afro-Cuban performer who started with singing praise songs dedicated to Yoruba orisa. Cruz was an unapologetic practitioner of Santeria and sang about orisa throughout her illustrious career. Cruz’s brother-in-spirit, Tito Puente, who was Puerto Rican, but found his career in Afro-Cuban jazz, accompanied her in several of those cantos when he could.
One of Cruz’s most popular songs is to Elegua. Also known as, Elegba or Papa Legba, it is the same orisa connected to the mythical story of the Mississippi blues man, Robert Johnson. Known for changing blues with the mastery of his guitar, Johnson is said to have made a deal with the devil. That is false history often purported through a blurry Western-racist lens.
Elegba was translated into the devil from a white-Anglo Christian agenda that sought to turn African culture into devil worship. A familiar tactic, it was used then and even now to maintain cultural imperialism and subjugation over Blacks, both African and native. Coded in the story is Elegba, Elegbara or Papa Legba, an orisa that stands at the crossroads of decisions, like Johnson made the deal at the crossroads.
Johnson asked Papa Elegba, a deity still known in the south and in Mississippi, to open up the roads for his musical career. Like many people in the Deep South, Johnson was a practitioner of the spiritual arts that still exists in Black American communities. People often just see it as a Louisiana practice, but I’ve seen it from Texas to New York and called many names such as mojo, juju, and roots.
| Watch: Orisa in the Ghetto: The Black Divine |
If Angelique Kidjo does not practice voodoo or orisa worship, she certainly is unafraid in representing her culture hence her song to Yemonja, otherwise known as Mami Wata. Yes back to that damn Starbucks. Kidjo’s ode to Yemonja is one of many songs to orisa.
If you check out her dynamic discography, she frequently speaks of African deities and spirituality. In fact, she dedicated a whole album to Celia Cruz by redoing her songs to orisa.
Power couple, Beyonce Knowles-Carter and Shawn “Jay Z” Carter are probably the most researched celebrities who have publicly shown their strong ties to ATR through visuals and lyrics. From Beyonce’s “Lemonade” visual album to Jay Z saying that his patron saint is Sango in his feature on the song “Pound Cake” with Drake, there are plenty of articles citing their clear connections.
Her signature fire-red hair and song, “Through the fire,” gives Chaka Khan away as being a child of Sango. The term “child of” signifies that there is a certain orisa representing the divine energy or path they walk. This is where astrology derives the thought about astrological signs connected to certain personality archetypes. As well, the child of an orisa also means an energy that you tap into for protection.
As a child of Sango, Chaka Khan embodies Sango who was a real ancient ruler of a kingdom called Oyo. In fact, Khan’s name is of two male warrior kings, Chaka Zulu and Genghis Khan. In the Yoruba pantheon, Sango is the warrior king with a hot, hot head. At the same time, we also must acknowledge Ms. Khan’s revolutionary roots. After all, she was one of the neighborhood youth to have been fed in the Black Panther Party breakfast program in Oakland in the 60s.
One day while thumbing through old shows, I stopped at the popular 1950s show, “I Love Lucy.” The scene was of the central character, Lucy, listening to her husband, Ricky Ricardo, performing with his Latin-music band and son. As he played a Conga drum, he belted out the word, “Babalu.” I had to take a hard pause.
Babalu is the Santeria orisa, Babalú Ayé who presides over healing from infectious diseases. Ricky Ricardo, whose real-life name was Dezi Arnaz, was a Cuban refugee whose parents fled to the US in 1933. They brought their ATR with them like Celia Cruz, and Lucille Ball let her husband bang out the orisa on black-and-white TV. Her nose was plenty open.
We’re going to stay in the Latin quarters for a minute and briefly mention Jennifer “Jenny from the Block” Lopez who is a known practitioner with a babalawo on deck to make her major decisions. Allegedly. Cardi B, who locates her matrilineal roots in the Dominican Republic openly speaks of practicing either Santeria, Palo or a voodoo hybrid. Hence the huge peacock tattooed on her side as an ode to Osun, the orisa of love, arts, and sexuality.
AMARA LA NEGRA
ATR connected also goes for Amara La Negra, a Dominicana performer and main character on Love & Hip Hip Miami, who has said repeatedly that her mother practices Santeria, but she does not. Now, er’body is rolling their eyes, like, “chile please.” Your mother got pots in that nice Miami house you just bought and prays for your protection in these vicious industry streets. We love it.
EL HAJJ MALIK SHABAZZ
Never will I deny El Hajj Malik Shabazz aka Malcom X’s commitment and submission to Islam and his devotion to be an exemplary Muslim. But it is known that he traveled to Nigeria. While there, he was given the Yoruba name, Omowale, by students at the University of Ibadan. Omowale translates to “Child has come home or returned.”
Legend has it that at some point in time, a babalawo performed a spiritual reading for Malcom X. Whether he was there or not, is unknown. In the reading, news of death or some sort of imminent double-crossing was revealed. The information from the reading was brought to him, as well as an offering—his death or undoing could be mitigated with the sacrifice of a black cockerel. X refused. In the community, it is believed that everyone has their own path; thus decides how to live it. He did and is one of the most elevated recent ancestors.
Now let me explain something. In traditional Yorubaland, divination is done on the spot for every and anything. So much so, it is rolled into daily life. When you visit someone’s house, before you eat, before a decision is made, divination is done by a priest. During my visit to Ile Ife, the spiritual center of the Yorubas, it was commonplace for divination to occur ad hoc.
Another piece of information I must mention in understanding how ATR is practiced in Nigeria is that it is non-denominational, meaning Christians and Muslims practice alike. They may not say it openly, but when all methods are exhausted, many go to the juju man or woman. In the old country, practitioners and non-practitioners carry out divination about almost everything. The ritual is like seeking counsel, but in the spiritual realm. However, elders are present, if they are not the diviners, to explain the meaning of the divination.
Whether X understood the reading or not, it is a cultural protocol. What we know about X is his profound respect of African culture. As a matter of fact, X participated in a number of ceremonies in Africa from his pilgrimage to Mecca to traditional ceremonies honoring him in West Africa. Evident is X wearing traditional African clothes throughout his trip.
At one point in Ghana, he ran into Muhammad Ali, the boxer who converted under X’s mentorship. Ali dissed X and his African clothes, as it was the height of X’s split from the Nation of Islam. Ali was still tied to Elijah Muhammad and the NOI. Later, Ali said it was one of his biggest regrets when he realized he was wrong. Eventually, he too would wear traditional Ghanaian kinte cloth.
X is what I would call ATR adjacent, not a practitioner, but someone who was in close proximity to it, and in some ways it was intertwined in some capacity. He understood the importance of holding onto culture, even in his Islamic faith.
Of other importance, there is a large Muslim Nigerian contingency in the country. Quiet as its kept, many practice ATR. The dual practice also emerges in the diaspora. It’s not in the open due to religious extremism, but be clear, everyone has a juju grandma, great-baba or auntie in the family. It’s just not for public knowledge.
Jazz has always welcomed thinking and practices outside of the mainstream, so it is not a surprise that some of our jazz greats dibble dabble in many things, including spirituality. Allegedly.
Dianne Reeves is said to be a priestess or child of Yemonja. On her version of “Afro Blue,” she rifts into a praise-call to Yemaya, the ocean orisa, makes sense. The word, Yemaya is the Spanish version of the Yoruba Yemonja.
Low key, I also think Ledisi is Yoruba-esk or Yoruba-adjacent, but I’m not sure-sure. If she is, she can sang a pataki, or praise song, down to the ile, that means earth. Nonetheless, Cassandra Wilson and her Delta Mississippi roots situated her in the heart of mojo country, which has kept her either adjacent or within Ifa or orisa traditions.
Another contemporary jazz artist, Omar Sosa, a priest of Obatala, hence his usual wearing of all white, is a devotee. Sosa, a prolific Afro-Cuban pianist, follows in the tradition of Cruz with full albums celebrating and exploring orisa. Included in continuing Santeria in jazz is Daymé Arocena. Her breakout mainstream song, Madrés, is to Osun and Yemaya.
Back to soul music, India Arie keeps the specificity of her spiritual practices mum, but definitely has some ATR roots deep somewhere in there—wearing white and shaving her head bald is a sign of initiation. Truth be told, the orisa ghetto grapevine knew of her involvement a long time ago. The good thing is she shows the evolution of practicing ATR and other indigenous spiritual systems in the East.
Erykah Badu who is also quiet about her spiritual practices, is what I would call a “pea soup philosopher,” which means a practitioner of a variety of spiritual methods. What is a pea soup philosopher? Years ago, a member of the Nation of Islam admitted that he sought spiritual guidance from a number of religions. When I asked him if that was against his vow as a Muslim, he said he was a “pea soup philosopher” who respected and took lessons from different lines. I liked that idea and now use it.
At one time, Badu was connected to Queen Afua, the nutritionist-spiritualist who uses Kemetic principles in her meditations and approaches. In Badu’s earlier years, on her live album, she has a song in which she sings, “Yeyo,” a word close to the Yoruba term for mother “yeye.” But we all can agree that Badu’s extra-galactic transformations like the orisa, Oya, keeps us on our toes. However, she is a midwife and death doula, both participating in standing at the gates of life coming into this world and leaving it. Hmmm.
Hip hop has a number of orisa practitioners. As of late, the most open is Fat Joe who displays him being a devotee in the video, “YES,” a song featuring Cardi B and Anuel AA. In it, the visual has an opener of priestesses at the water making an offering to Yemaya before it goes to “ass up face down” lyrics.
There are a number of hip hop artists who have dipped their toe in ATR. In fact, Richard Morales, aka Gunplay admitted to practicing Santeria to beat a life sentence, while Princess Nokia intertwines Santeria lyrics into her music. Earlier in 2020, Kevin Gates tapped into his Louisiana roots with single, Trapped. On the Complex, he spoke on his journey in spirituality that led to he and his wife, Dreka, practicing voodoo.
IBEYI AND OSHUN
You also have two duo groups that use orisa in their name. Ibeyi, which is the Spanish word for the Yoruba term, ibeji, which means twin. I just heard Ibeyi’s song, “River,” in the series, “Queen Sugar” and “Underground.” They’re also in Beyonce’s “Lemonade” visual—wink, wink. Oh, and how could I forget the ultra afrofuturistic duo, Oshun, named after Osun, the orisa mentioned earlier. The millennials are not hiding for anyone. Good. Let’s get free.
*Words like Osun, orisa, Sango, and Oya are part of the Yoruba spiritual system. There is much more to learn about ATR. This is a cursory glance with “alleged” talk of associations.
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